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[caption id="attachment_175417" align="alignright" width="300"] Don Perry is a third-generation proprietor of Lee Brick & Tile in Sanford.[/caption] Don Perry doesn’t merely tolerate the searing heat of his factory; the compact

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[caption id="attachment_175417" align="alignright" width="300"] Don Perry is a third-generation proprietor of Lee Brick & Tile in Sanford.[/caption] Don Perry doesn’t merely tolerate the searing heat of his factory; the compact

How Sanford Became Brick City

Red brick buildings in downtown Sanford, North Carolina.
Don Perry is a third-generation proprietor of Lee Brick & Tile in Sanford, North Carolina.

Don Perry is a third-generation proprietor of Lee Brick & Tile in Sanford. photograph by Charles Harris

Don Perry doesn’t merely tolerate the searing heat of his factory; the compact man of 65 marches right through the dust and din to its source. “This kiln gets up to 2,000 degrees,” he marvels, gingerly flipping open a peephole drilled into the side of a massive furnace to reveal a raging inferno. Inside, flames encase and harden bricks. Tons and tons and tons of them, day after blazing day.

As the third-generation proprietor of Lee Brick & Tile in Sanford, Perry regularly walks this factory floor, scrambling atop narrow scaffolding and conversing through the clanking commotion. As old hat as this tumult may be to the wry, gray-topped executive, he seems to revel in it.

Red clay rides a conveyor belt inside the Lee Brick and Tile factory.

Red clay rides a conveyor belt inside the Lee Brick & Tile factory. photograph by Charles Harris

Outside, roaring machines the size of dinosaurs roll in from mines just over the pine-lined horizon, feeding the freshly clawed clay into vast sorting systems. “That’s what Lee County has an abundance of — red shale and clay,” Perry declares. “That’s why at one point we were the Brick Capital of the USA.”

Indeed, a sign emblazoned with those very words once welcomed visitors to Sanford, which is located on U.S. Highway 1 about halfway between the gleaming high-rises of Raleigh and the elegant golf links of Pinehurst. Over the years, an untold number of businesses here have embraced the superlative, from the old Brick City Motors to Brick City Boba (the tea beverage made with tapioca pearls).

Bricks emerge as fully formed blocks at the Lee Brick & Tile in Sanford, North Carolina.

It emerges as fully formed blocks, ready for building new structures in Sanford or renovating old ones. photograph by Charles Harris

Laborers willing to brave the soil and toil have long mined the great basins of red clay that squat under much of central North Carolina. But the industry has slowed — a function of changing consumer preferences and corporate doings. Today, Lee Brick is the last of what were once four family-owned brickmaking businesses booming in Sanford. Perry sags a little when he talks about the changes. “You can’t freeze time, I guess,” he says with a sigh. “Life goes on.”

While brick has long symbolized stability, even permanence, there’s really no such thing. Sands shift, suns fade, empires crumble. Still, bricks brought prosperity and opportunity to Sanford. And as the town’s 150th anniversary approaches in 2024, that sturdy legacy isn’t going anywhere.

• • •

As a showcase for all things brick, downtown Sanford is stacked. You can’t throw a rock here without hitting a brick. At the center stands the train depot, built in 1910 — apropos, since the town’s position as a railway crossroads helped brickmakers export their wares. Surrounding the depot are blocks of storefronts, offices, and erstwhile factories constructed with bricks of multiple hues and textures. From the stately Temple Theatre to the whimsical Coca-Cola bottling plant, Sanford is a museum of masonry.

While the various historic plaques around town note dates from the early 20th century, the origin of the brick in these buildings goes back a tad further: 240 million years, give or take. That’s when the continents that we know today broke from one giant landmass and went their separate ways. Runoff from the newly formed mountains began sloshing into vast topographic basins. Eons’ worth of fallen plants, animal remains, and minerals all stewed in massive natural compost bins. It’s from those so-called Triassic basins that Perry and so many others have pulled the stuff from which bricks — and, in some cases, dreams — are made.

The old red-and-green brick depot in Sanford, North Carolina

Built in 1910, the old brick depot is now part of Depot Park, which hosts outdoor concerts. photograph by Charles Harris

But the work was far from dreamy. “It was hard. Outdoors. Quite a bit of sunshine. Sometimes rain,” remembers 100-year-old retired engineer Bob Brickhouse (yes, that’s his real name), chatting on his way to a church luncheon. “Sure, my body ached. But we did a pretty good job. And what I liked most was the paycheck at the end of the week.”

Even in this era of increasing automation, Perry says, “I’ve had people quit after two days.” A long-running joke around town has it that a muscle-taxing week of mining, shaping, and cooking bricks has inspired many a Sanford lad to light out for college. But for those who stayed connected to the clay, other kinds of adventures awaited.

Margaret Murchison of Sanford, North Carolina

Margaret Murchison has broadcast radio news in Sanford since 1978. photograph by Charles Harris

On the opposite side of downtown from Lee Brick, another Sanford mainstay, Margaret Murchison, works in a far different environment from Perry’s. Instead of roaring machinery, there’s just the honeyed tones of radio voices inside the tiny but mighty WWGP-AM and WFJA-FM building. Since 1978, the ever-ebullient Murchison, 75, has reported the local news here — from hurricanes to who’s got an extra sack of pecans to trade for tomatoes.

Yet as far removed as Murchison is from Perry’s factory, she, too, knows and reveres the industry born of red clay — especially the opportunities that it afforded. Her education in bricks started at the W.B. Wicker School. When it opened in 1927, the school provided vocational training to the region’s Black students — and a fast track to success.

The Temple Theatre in Sanford, North Carolina.

The Temple Theatre, a vaudeville house in the 1920s, today houses Central Carolina’s Center for the Performing Arts. photograph by Charles Harris

“Everyone knew that the boys training to be brickmasons were the ones almost guaranteed to do well,” she recalls, peering through wide spectacles. Like a musicologist relaying a legendary canon of old gospel acts, Murchison rattles off a list of notable Black masons: the Watson brothers, the Browns, an industrious church deacon who laid brick between hallelujahs. The clay pulled from deep underground was their ticket up.

“They were in demand, here and other places,” Murchison says. “They’d ride together to Fort Bragg. Or to Cary. They might be gone a whole week. They’d come back and tell stories about the beautiful houses in the suburbs. A lot of the masons themselves lived in stick houses; they never got around to building their own brick house. But some did, and many of those are still standing.”

Two of Sanford's hometown civil rights heroes, A.L. Boykin and W.B. Wicker, are memorialized as murals.

Radio personality Margaret Murchison values local education and enterprise. Two of her hometown heroes — A.L. Boykin (left) and W.B. Wicker — are memorialized on downtown murals. photograph by Charles Harris

If enduring edifices are a tribute to the people who built them, then there may be no more heralded figure in Sanford than Arnold Lincoln Boykin. Known as A.L. or Link, the construction contractor took a lead role in all kinds of projects during much of the first half of the 20th century — from the old Sanford Post Office (now a pizza joint) to the W.B. Wicker School (now integrated and specializing in science, technology, engineering, art, and math).

Today, from a mural on downtown’s south side, Boykin’s serious eyes gaze out at the community to which he contributed. Similar paintings appear all over, honoring local baseball sluggers, war heroes, and even the cows that provide ingredients for the ice cream at Yarborough’s, located in the former Fairview Dairy.

The murals are both a colorful celebration of Sanford’s storied past and evidence of efforts to make the former Brick Capital’s present just as vivid.

• • •

Any number of seasoned Sanford Residents can provide a take on the history of the Brick Capital — and many eagerly offer to do so. But when it comes to making sure that the city’s brick legacy remains vibrant today and tomorrow, few know the ins and outs better than Kelli Laudate.

Like Perry and Murchison, the executive director of Downtown Sanford, Inc., grew up here, and she bubbles with love for the place. Darting through historic downtown in a black Tesla, she points out all of the ways that creative owners are reinventing the old brick buildings. A hot spot for gourmet lunches here. An Airbnb there. “Everything here has so much history,” she says, “and so much potential.”

Under the cover of vines behind the depot, smack in the middle of downtown, slouches a decrepit brick railroad warehouse. It’s forgotten to most, but not to Laudate. “It has a mezzanine,” she says. “It could be a great place to see music.” A place, she suggests, along the lines of Saxapahaw’s esteemed Haw River Ballroom.

The red clay — harking back to prehistoric convulsions and mined long ago — lives on, taking on new meaning. Laudate herself is working with her husband, Jamey, on reviving the long-shuttered Progressive Grocery store as a restaurant. There’s just one hurdle. In these busy times for Sanford, she’s having trouble booking a brickmason.

This story was published on Oct 23, 2023

Billy Warden

Billy Warden is a Raleigh-based writer, TV producer, and marketing executive as well as two-time TEDx speaker and longtime singer with the glam rock band The Floating Children. His work has been recognized with a Muse Creative Arts award, Telly awards, and a regional Emmy nomination.